PRSS rolls out training program that aims to cultivate new generation of public radio engineers

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The Public Radio Satellite System is launching a program to train and certify engineers, an effort to address a shortage of qualified engineering talent that has been an ongoing concern for public radio managers.

Michael Beach, NPR VP of distribution, announced the Public Radio Engineering Training Program at the Public Radio Engineering conference in Las Vegas April 4. Beach said the idea for the program came from conversations he’d had with general managers during station visits.

“I ask them what keeps them up at night,” he said. The answer, increasingly, has been the aging out of engineers and a dearth of new talent entering the field as younger engineers gravitate toward higher-profile careers.

“Look around this room,” he asked attendees. “How many of us will be in this room in five, six, seven years? I think there will be some turnover.”

The new PRETP program is aimed at public radio staffers who might already be interested in broadcast engineering but lack specialized training and experience. A particular concern, Beach said, is the declining number of engineers with even basic experience with the radio-frequency, or RF, aspects of the profession — the transmitters, studio-transmitter links and satellite systems that are still the bedrock of local public radio operations.

In many cases, Beach said, station managers are finding that prospective engineers arrive with a background in information technology but little or no RF experience. PRSS hopes that by adding RF engineering study as part of the PREPT program, “we can see IT engineers becoming RF engineers,” he said.

The new program will include three levels of experience, starting with Certified Public Radio Operator and progressing to Certified Public Radio Technologist and Certified Public Radio Engineer. Those levels are based on the established certification program from the Society of Broadcast Engineers, which will serve as the foundation of the public radio version.

Each PRETP level will include study material and the test for the corresponding Society of Broadcast Engineers certification level, which ranges from Certified Radio Operator to Certified Broadcast Radio Engineer. Because so much public radio engineering depends on satellite transmission, the public version of the program will also include specialized training at each level from the Global VSAT Forum.

“This is a selfish move from our part at PRSS,” Beach said. “When the PRSS sends equipment to your shop, once that’s done, you own it. So guess who’s supposed to be maintaining it?” By including satellite training as part of the program, Beach said, PRSS staffers can save time by fielding fewer questions about basic maintenance from member stations.

Each level of the program will also include a selection of engineering handbooks, membership in the SBE and optional registration for the NAB Show and PREC. Including the conference registrations, each package will cost $1,700, though SBE members will pay $1,400 for mid- and advanced-level courses. Participants in the mid- and advanced-level courses can also qualify for additional discounts by foregoing registering for PREC and the NAB Show.

Beach said some general managers have already indicated they’re ready to pay the costs. He emphasized that PRSS doesn’t envision taking on a training role itself, leaving that role to its new partners at SBE and GVF.

“We’re pretty excited,” said SBE president Jim Leifer. While preliminary discussions between PRSS and SBE began a year ago, Leifer says the full PRETP program rolled out quickly in Las Vegas during PREC and the subsequent NAB Show, where SBE held a national board meeting.

“[PRSS] is probably the first major group that’s coming out and saying, ‘We’re going to encourage our local stations to take tests and become members,’” Leifer told Current. “Obviously, we hope others will take similar steps in the commercial world.”

PRSS began posting information about the program during PREC. A spokesperson said a finalized application for PRETP will be available by the end of April, in conjunction with distribution of a formal announcement of the program to station managers.

This article has been updated with new information about the cost of the training program.

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